Category Archives: Vietnam

Coffee in Hanoi

I’m returning to Vietnam next month, and that got me thinking about the many hours I’ve spent in coffee shops in Hanoi, especially one on Ngu Xa in Truc Bach…

By Alison Bate

 The cafe owner smiles the smile of many mornings as she brings over my iced coffee and green tea chaser. I lean forward in my bamboo chair to stir the two-tone Nau Da, digging down with the long-handled spoon to mix in the condensed milk, navigating around the lumps of ice. The mixture curdles and looks like a work of art sometimes and other times, a sludgy mess.

I take a sip of Nau Da and the chocolatey taste spreads inside my mouth, and an involuntary smile outside. A sip of the green Tra Da clears my palette and my mind. Continue reading

War, peace and the artist: Muoi Trong Nguyen

By Alison Bate

The corpses filled the river valley, their hands stretched toward the sky.

It was 1979 and Hanoi artist Muoi Trong Nguyen had been sent north to the border with China to record the war scenes for historical purposes. The fighting between China and Vietnam lasted less than a month, but in that short time, more than 30,000 soldiers died in the conflict, also known as the Third Indochina War.

He spent months after the battle ended, sketching and painting watercolors on site, but it’s this image of the hands of the corpses stretched toward the sky that stays with him. Sadly, he says the paintings no longer exist or are in the hands of the military.

Pix Muoi Trong Nguyen and Thang Tran

Artist Muoi Trong Nguyen (left) with translator Thang Tran at Writing Across Generations in Hanoi, April 2016

Western visitors to Vietnam often focus on the aftermath of the “American War”, as it is known here, or perhaps the colonial period, when France colonized the country. But to most Vietnamese nowadays, these wars are events from the past. Any current fears or threats are focussed on its neighbor China, based on its past invasions, current maritime ambitions and, of course, tempered by a booming trade between the two countries.

Nguyen, who writes in Vietnamese under the name Nguyen Trong Thap*, has brought out a new memoir “Noi Chim” that gives a fascinating glimpse of personal life in north Vietnam during the land reforms, the American War, and his time in the military and as an artist. He read excerpts from “Noi Chim” (Sinking and Swimming) and answered questions at a special reading at Hanoi Cooking Centre in April. At the event “Across the Generations”, he was joined by poet Nguyen Thi Hong Van and blogger and copywriter Yuki Phan, with Thang Tran translating.
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In praise of roommates and random conversations

By Alison Bate

My French roommate Julien is practising his Occitan, a language I’d never heard of until he moved in four months ago.

Julien and the Occitan flag

Julien and the Occitan flag

Julien is from Toulouse and he showed me a beautiful YouTube video called Mon Pais, accompanied by a rousing patriotic song. The language of Occitan sounds like a cross between French and Spanish which, of course, it is.

Glorious snowcapped mountains, sweeping white beaches and unbearably cute limestone villages in southern France floated by as Occitan subtitles spread across the screen.

Meanwhile in our apartment, the red and yellow flag of Occitan has pride of place next to Julien’s computer. I made the mistake of saying: “It looks a bit like the Crusades flag.” He visibly blanched and rushed to correct me “No, it’s the opposite of that,” he said, launching into an extended history of Occitan. I quickly apologised. Continue reading

General Giap goes home

By Alison Bate

Crowds pressed in to try and see the funeral procession of General Vo Nguyen Giap in Hanoi on Oct.12, 2013.

Crowds press in to try and see the funeral procession in Hanoi Sunday.

The body of General Giap was escorted from Hanoi to his home town in Quang Binh province for burial.

A woman tries to hand over chrysanthemum flowers to an officer for placing with other wreaths in Hanoi Sunday.

A woman tries to hand over chrysanthemum flowers to an officer for placing with other wreaths in Hanoi Sunday.

An officer holds a poster commemorating General Giap on Hoang Dieu, Hanoi on Sunday.

An officer holds a poster commemorating General Giap on Hoang Dieu, Hanoi on Sunday.

Writing in Hanoi

Author and writing instructor Julie Ferguson asked me to write a guest blog about my experience writing a novel while living overseas. Here’s the article in full:

Pix Alison Bate

Alison Bate in Hanoi, 2013

Hanoi is a surprisingly good place to write a book.

The capital of Vietnam boasts good coffee shops with Wifi, teaching jobs where you don’t have to work too hard to cover rent, and the jostle of 3.5 million other motorbikes that stimulates creativity.

It’s a total contrast to my home on Bowen Island in western Canada, where deer roam the yard and only the whining of chainsaws breaks the peace.

Writing in two very different settings, I’ve realised that wherever I live there are other writers around to help during the long, lonely journey of working on a first draft.

My roommate Tom introduced me to the Hanoi Writers Collective in April 2012, and throughout the next 12 months, the expat group became the lifeline that kept my novel moving along.

We were a mixed bunch, coming from different countries and writing in very different genres. Andy Engelson was writing an epic novel based in the U.S. Pacific Northwest; Diederik Prakke, about Buddhists in love; Mary Croy and Liz Burgess, sci-fi for young adults; Charlotte Adams, poetry; and Linda Mazur, a nonfiction study of the early Vietnamese architects in Hanoi. Continue reading

Ten things I’ll miss about Hanoi

Pix Hanoi in the rain

Hanoi, always full of atmosphere (Pix: Alison Bate)

Liz, one of my colleagues at work, asked me last night what I’ll miss about living in Hanoi. It’s the people I’ll miss the most when I leave next month, of course.

Tall and thin houses in Hanoi – to beat the tax on the width frontage

Tall and thin– to beat the tax on the width frontage

But, in a strange sort of way, I’ve also grown to love the following:

* Motorbikes in the living room

* Jockey-cap motorbike helmets designed to fall apart at the slightest accident

* Tall thin houses

* Impossibly-thin motorbike cops

* Throwing the garbage in the alley for the recycle ladies to collect

* Cafe sua da – good iced coffee for under a dollar

* Fresh pineapple for sale with all the hard work taken care of – cut up and ready to eat

* Fresh fruit shakes made out of bananas and pineapple

* Students with the same name in one class: three Thao’s, three Hoa’s, two Nguyen’s, etc

* “When my grandpa was a boy, He was a lot like me…” and other Family and Friends gems

* And, of course, the rat in the photocopier

Preparing the Tet trees in Hanoi

Au Co workers in Hanoi take a quick break from moving and hauling kumquat trees for Tet

Au Co workers in Hanoi take a quick break from moving and hauling kumquat trees for Tet

Quite a balancing act

A tough balancing act, taking a kumquat tree home in Hanoi, Vietnam

Pix motorbikers and peach tree

Not so easy loading a heavy peach tree onto a motorbike

I live in Au Co, near the orchards and flower market, and the main road right now is a manic mess of motorbikes, flower sellers on bikes, and walking and moving trees.

It’s just days before Tet and everyone in Hanoi is buying a kumquat tree for good luck in the coming Lunar New Year. Kumquats look like really cute baby mandarin orange trees, and according to one of my Vietnamese colleagues, it’s very important the tree has “good posture”. Not standing up straight, but a pretty shape.These trees are typically carried to their new homes by stern-looking motorbike drivers, miraculously balancing them on the backs of their bikes.

The branches of pink-blossomed peach trees are also popular and I’ve even seen heavily-bonsai’d dragon fruit trees on the move.

More and more lilies and chrysanthemums are emerging for sale in little side lots, along the sides of roads and as a sideline. Even the juice bar near the school I work at has started selling small trees and flowers out front.

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No. 132 passes the motorbike test in Hanoi

Pix Alison Bate on Yamaha

On my Yamaha Nouvo on Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi

By Alison Bate

I’m finally legal, after five months of zoom-zooming around Hanoi.

Yesterday, I went to pick up my Vietnamese motorbike license, after a tortuous but entertaining journey.

Like nearly everyone here in Hanoi, I’ve broken rules that I wouldn’t dream of flouting in Canada. Ridden my Yamaha Nouvo daily without a license and without insurance; carried passengers without a helmet; and occasionally even ridden the wrong way down main roads. That’s what Hanoians do, and it’s simply the best way to get around the city.

It’s nerve-wracking at first, driving on the crazy, noisy no-rules streets. But after a while, you get used the rhythm of the roads and learn to never look back – only ahead.

I’ve never been stopped by the police and if I had been, the advice was simple: pretend you don’t speak any Vietnamese. As most of the police don’t speak English, either, they are very reluctant to stop westerners or Tays, as we are called.

But now, after endless paperwork, getting a Vietnamese car license, a battery of photos, a medical and a figure-of-eight driving test, I’m finally legal.

Ten days ago, I joined four other colleagues at Language Link for the final big hurdle: the practical test.
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On the Indigo Trail: with the Black H’mong in NW Vietnam

"The village of Ly Lao Chi"

The village of Ly Lao Chi, near Sapa in northwest Vietnam

By Alison Bate

The Latin name trips off his tongue easily.

“Have you seen any strobilanthes cusia – the indigo plant? Or know anyone who makes the indigo dye here,” a boisterous French guy called out as I wandered by a street café.

Bemused, I joined Jean-Louis Dulaar for some of the local bitter green tea, and gave him the number of my homestay owner, Mr. Hoa, who spoke good English.

“No, not Tavan, but in the next village, people make the dye,” Mr. Hoa told him.

We were in the village of Tavan, about seven kilometres down the mountain from Sapa, in northwest Vietnam. I had a few days off work so had caught an overnight train and minibus from Hanoi to Sapa. It was full of ethnic minority women relentlessly trying to sell their handicraft, and I couldn’t wait to get out of town.

“You rich, me poor. You buy my stuff. Why you not buy? You monkey,” they would chant.

After buying an exotic hanging from one of the few polite women, I escaped on a Xe-om taxi (hug a motorbike) to Tavan, a beautiful little village surrounded by rice fields at the bottom of a beautiful valley. I spent the night at Mr. Hoa’s homestay, nursing a cold and enjoying some healing shots of rice wine.

Jean-Louis Dulaar with one of the local villagers in Lao Chi

The next morning, I ran into Jean-Louis Dulaar, who turned out to be a French artist who goes around the world learning local methods of using natural plants to make dyes and then creates his own paintings.

“What are you doing today?” Jean Louis asked me.

“Not much.”

Zoom zoom. Two minutes later, I joined him on the back of his rented motorbike heading for the village of Lao Chai. There, we got off and stumbled around trying to find someone who understood what he wanted.

Continue reading

Friday night in Hanoi

Kids watching the flag-folding ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi

Kids watching the flag-folding ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi

It’s Friday night in Hanoi and the Mausoleum is like a gigantic playground.

Barefoot toddlers and pre-schoolers run around in circles, dads hoist kids on their shoulders, and moms guard strollers, teddy bears and surplus clothes.

Shrieks of laughter fill the night air, a pleasant change from the impatient beep-beeps in the background from motorbikers on nearby Hung Vuong Street

The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, which holds the embalmed remains of the former president, is lit up in pinkish red, like an empty opera stage just before a performance.

Kids and parents playing at the Mausoleum on Friday night.

Kids and parents playing at the Mausoleum on Friday night.

The field in front is also floodlit, adding to the dramatic air, and criss-crossed with paths full of young people walking in T-shirts, shorts and capris and the occasional older woman wearing loose pyjamas.

Suddenly a whistle blows and the crisply-pressed white uniformed guards move into action, gently clearing the square of toddlers and their parents and pushing the crowd back into the grassy area.

But they don’t leave. On a path parallel to the square, the kids sit down and their parents stand behind them, all in a row, all clearly waiting for something to happen.

Martial music begins to play, and the adults sing along. Then from the left, a troop of the white uniformed guards marches three-by-three across the square toward the giant flag in front o the mausoleum. The flag is slowly lowered to triumphal music and folded away by one of the guards.

The crowd slowly drifts over to the motorbike park, and dad and mom drive off with their little kids squashed between them on the back of the motorbike. The square empties quickly and Ho Chi Minh is left in peace again.

(Posted April 17, 2012 by Alison Bate)